2015-03-28

A Rare Find: A Serious Engagement with Robert M. Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man

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by Neil Godfrey

51gYhdpFBcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_James Pate of James’ Ramblings has written up notes on his reading of Robert M. Price’s Christ Myth book, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition? James is certainly not a mythicist (he is a regular church goer and “believer”) but he does honestly grapple with several of Price’s points. It’s so refreshing to read. No ad hominem. No glib misrepresentation of the arguments. I find myself in sympathy with some of the points he struggles with.

Some samples:

For some reason, though, reading this book by Price was a rather exhausting and disturbing process for me, and I wonder why.  Maybe it was because I thought that, even if the Bible has errors, there are still things that we can historically take for granted about Jesus, things that are edifying to my faith, and Price was dismantling (or trying to dismantle) this view, page after page after page. . . . This book, however, is still a challenge to me.

On honesty with himself:

I am often reluctant to read and blog about books that promote Christ-mythicism, even though I have written blog posts in the past that are relevant to that debate (i.e., Was Christianity influenced by the mystery religions or the belief in a dying and rising god?  Was the reference to Jesus in Josephus’ Antiquities 18.3.3 authentic?).  Why have I been reluctant?  It is because I am afraid that I will not know enough to refute the Christ-mythicist arguments, and thus I will look bad to other biblical scholars or budding biblical scholars . . . . 

James’ notes are very easy to read with each topic paragraph conveniently numbered.

I liked the way James suspends judgment pending follow up of the sources Price cites. That’s how I tend to read books and I always assumed it was the “correct” way. What is so surprising is to find someone who applies this to book presenting a case against the historicity of Jesus. . . . read more »


Homer in the Gospels: Recent Thoughts

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by Neil Godfrey

Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has posted an interesting discussion on Dennis MacDonald’s defence at the recent Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference of his thesis that a significant influence of the Homeric literature can be found in the New Testament writings, especially the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts.

For those wondering what the status of his views currently are in the mainstream of biblical studies they will find this an interesting read. Some comments:

Not surprisingly, MacDonald’s thesis has had a number of critics, but has also received a good deal of praise. . .

Overall, the general consensus is that some of the parallels that MacDonald identifies are very strong and interesting, while others are weaker and more speculative. But, one thing that was generally agreed upon at the SBL conference is that mimesis criticism is working its way into mainstream biblical criticism. In fact, MacDonald’s mimesis criticism is likewise going to be discussed at the SBL Annual Meeting in Georgia later this year. . . .

The fact that MacDonald’s arguments will be a central part of this year’s annual SBL conference suggests to me that MacDonald’s new methods are, indeed, making headway into mainstream Biblical Studies. I am not sure whether mimesis criticism will necessarily be central to interpreting the majority of passages in the Gospels and Acts, but I do think that it is very applicable to select examples . . . .

Competing with OT influence? read more »


2015-03-26

Did Muhammad Exist? A revisionist look at Islam’s Origins

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by Neil Godfrey

A criticism of the view that Muhammad did not exist

Excerpts from an interview published in

Spiegel Online International  

Dispute among Islam Scholars: Did Muhammad Ever Really Live?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is a group of prominent German Islamic scholars, who are becoming increasingly aggressive about questioning whether the existence of the Prophet is even historically accurate. The theory got its most recent backing from the University of Münster’s Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, who is in charge of training teachers for Islamic education at the secondary-school level. The Ministry of Education of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is now planning to calm the waters by appointing an additional professor of Islamic pedagogy. Are we witnessing a split into two camps?

Marx: I don’t see it that way. But we should note that what we have from Kalisch at the moment are only the things he has allegedly said. From them, it sounds like he has decided to back the thesis of Professor Karl-Heinz Ohlig, which Ohlig publicized three years ago in his book “Dark Beginnings” (“Die dunklen Anfänge”). There, Ohlig posits that the Koran is a Christian text and that Muhammad probably never lived. But this group, which also includes the numismatist Volker Popp and some others, is very small. I’d say that their position isn’t really within the realm of accepted scholarship.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

Marx: There are far too many pieces of evidence that make Ohlig’s thesis that the Prophet never lived untenable. In the 14 centuries of polemics between Christians and Muslims, this issue has never made an appearance. Even in Syrian-Aramaic sources, however, there is some documentation about the prophet from an earlier time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your scholarship focuses on the early period of Islam and the Koran. What is the evidentiary situation? How could we prove that the Prophet lived?

Marx: You have to be a bit delicate about it. In general, when it comes to history, you can’t point to any scientific proof. How would we, for example, prove the existence of Charlemagne? We can’t conduct any experiments; we have to work with evidence. And, for this issue, the evidentiary thread is the Koran. In this case, the evidentiary situation is better than it is for any other religion. We know of manuscripts of the Koran and Islamic inscriptions already 40-50 years after the Prophet died. It would be hard to explain the Koran, if you took the prophet out of the equation. Ohlig claims that Islam was actually a Christian sect up until the Umayyad Caliphate, that is, the eighth century. In this case, I run into this massive issue: It doesn’t match up with the text of the Koran. Why isn’t Christ a more central figure in the Koran, then? You hear about Abraham, Moses and Noah much more frequently.

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, if the Prophet did not live, in order to explain the literature, there must have been an enormous conspiracy.

Marx: Precisely. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you saying that Ohlig and his fellow combatants are either demagogues or pseudo-scholars?

Marx: It’s not for me to make that type of judgment. But that’s what it seems like to me. . . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Muhammad Sven Kalisch operates in a sort of border region, that is, between science and theology. And, then, he’s supposed to be training religion teachers, too. The Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany (KRM) isn’t going to support him anymore because they believe that Kalisch is questioning fundamental elements of the Islamic faith. Is it conceivable that a person can be a Muslim and at the same time say that the Prophet might not have even ever lived?

Marx: That’s hard to imagine. . . .

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could we ever see the thesis — that the Prophet Muhammad might not have ever lived — brought up as a matter of discussion in an Islamic university?

Marx: I wouldn’t know where.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a researcher, how do you steer clear of this tense issue? You use what is a completely critical-historical approach. As long as your findings don’t contradict mainstream Muslim theology, it’s no problem. But what happens when it does?

Marx: Well, then it would probably be a problem. But we’re still a good way off from that situation. Don’t forget that what we’re doing here is basic research. The Koran deserves to be studied in a serious, scientific manner. I think it’s essential that we take these steps with Muslims. . . .

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash

In 2013 I read Tom Holland’s history of the rise of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, in which he argues in a most readable narrative that the astonishing spread of Arab conquests in the seventh century had more to do a series of tragic forces, in particular the Bubonic Plague, weakening the neighbouring Byzantine and Persian empires, than it did with the might of Arab arms. Moreover, those Arab conquests were not motivated by the Islamic faith; rather, the Islamic faith did not emerge until some decades after those conquests. I posted about Holland’s views at:

Since then I have been wanting to read more about the historical questions surrounding early Islam. Holland cited the works of several scholars I had hoped to engage with before I read Robert Spencer’s book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, (But I distracted myself by reading another of Holland’s historical works instead.) Meanwhile Spencer’s book fell my way so I grabbed it.

Happily it turned out to be much more interesting as a historical exploration than I had expected. The most troubling flaw was Spencer’s rather poorly informed and stereotypical views of the nature of religions generally and Islam in particular as experienced in today’s world: he contrasts Christianity as an essentially peaceful religion ever since its origins with Islam as an essentially war-making and killing machine because of its historical origins. Some readers will love that summary and others will be dismayed by it (I am among the latter). Nonetheless, despite this botched conclusion much of the book is quite interesting and informative. How much of its information I will come to revise as I learn more I don’t know, so here I am writing up some general points that appear to be the views of a minority of Islamic scholars.

Anyone familiar with the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus will recognize some of the terrain here. Evidence cited over the years for the historicity of Muhammad has included:

  • the rich and vivid detail in the Islamic records of his life
  • the documenting of negative (embarrassing) features of his biography
  • the implausibility of anyone making up a character making such grandiose claims
  • only the personal inspiration of such a person could explain why so many others were motivated to found a vast empire in his name
  • how else can we explain the founding of a religion that went on to boast more than a billion adherents

Similar arguments have been made for the historicity of Jesus yet as we know not one of them truly withstands scrutiny.

But before I write more about the doubts raised about the traditional story of Islam’s origins I ought to make clear what scholars who dispute this minority view say about it.

Patricia Crone is professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She writes:

True, on Arabic coins and inscriptions, and in papyri and other documentary evidence in the language, Mohammed only appears in the 680s, some fifty years after his death (whatever its exact date). This is the ground on which some, notably Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren, have questioned his existence. But few would accept the implied premise that history has to be reconstructed on the sole basis of documentary evidence (i.e. information which has not been handed down from one generation to the next, but rather been inscribed on stone or metal or dug up from the ground and thus preserved in its original form). The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the middle east, must be said to be exceptionally good.

Everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain, but we can still say a fair amount with reasonable assurance. Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt. Those who deny the existence of an Arabian prophet dispute it, of course, but it causes too many problems with later evidence, and indeed with the Qur’an itself, for the attempt to be persuasive.

For my own views on Crone’s argument about historicity see my post on historical method.

For further criticism see also, of course, the interview excerpts I have placed in the side-box.

I mentioned previously several other historians who have questioned the conventional story of Islam’s origins in my posts on Tom Holland’s book; here are a few of many more names listed by Spencer:

Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921): Lateness of earliest biographical sources on Muhammad along with tendency to invent stories to support later political and religious positions made it impossible to treat the biographies as historically reliable. Spencer lists many names of scholars who have raised questions about Muhammad’s historicity but I list only a few here;

Henri Lammens (1862-1937): Questioned the traditional dates associated with Muhammad; noted the “artificial character and absence of critical sense” in the earliest biographies of Muhammad.

Joseph Schacht (1902-1969): Impossible to extract authentic core of historical material from the earliest texts. Many documents claiming to be early were in fact composed much later.

John Wansbrough (1928-2002): Doubted the historical value of early Islamic texts. Qur’an was developed for political purposes to establish Islam’s origins in Arabia and to give the Arabian empire a distinctive religion.

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook: Noted lateness and unreliability of most early Islamic sources; reviewed archaeological, philological sources, coins from seventh and eighth centuries. Posited that Islam arose within and then split from Judaism. Argued the Arabic setting (including Mecca) was at a late date and for political purposes read back into the history of Islam’s origins. Later, however, Crone wrote that the evidence for Muhammad’s existence is “exceptionally good” (see the quotation above).

Günter Lüling: Qur’an originated as a Christian document; reflects theology of non-Trinitarian Christianity that influenced Islam.

Christoph Luxemberg (pseudonym): Qur’an shows signs of a Christian substratum; Syriac, not Arabic, resolves many difficulties in the text.

So what are the main points that prompt questions about the historicity of Muhammad and suggest that Islam emerged as a major religion some decades after the Arab conquests? Robert Spencer lists the following: read more »


2015-03-24

Defensive Postures of Biblical Scholarship

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by Neil Godfrey

Following are some general thoughts about a negative side of biblical scholarship. Each point needs unpacking in order to justify itself. But for now I’m just having a bit of a lament concerning the overview.

In the midst of an abundance of solid scholarship that I thoroughly enjoy and that I like to share when I can on this blog there is sadly also a fair amount of poorly reasoned and ill informed writing by even some of the prominent names among scholars of early Christianity. I have in mind not only writings that relate to popular misconceptions about noncanonical texts and the view that Jesus did not exist but also a more general adherence to assumptions that are in reality apologetic in origin and that are the foundation of “historical methods” unique to the world of “Biblical history“.

It’s disappointing and frustrating when one encounters scholarly essays, presentations, blog posts dripping with smugness, defensiveness and fear exactly at those junctures where the public is most interested. This is not what one expects from professionals of any kind, least of all from those in the business of education. Wider public education seems irrelevant to those who appear to have no interest in audiences beyond their peers and fell0w-Christians. Some scholars even convey the sense that they distrust the interests of anyone who is neither a peer nor a committed Christian.

If this sounds as though there is something of a defensive wall surrounding the declining field of biblical studies then the scene within that wall might be described as “softly” dictatorial. Peter Kirby has compiled “a short list” of some twenty-five scholars who “have resigned or were dismissed from their positions in awkward circumstances, typically arising in connection to some kind of statement of faith issue (or otherwise controversial circumstances).” read more »


2015-03-22

The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (2)

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by Tim Widowfield

This is the second section of Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance. In the previous post, I tried to explain how modern Memory Mavens often read Maurice Halbwachs selectively. For example, Barry Schwartz (see Part 3) and Anthony Le Donne (see Part 5.1) inexplicably failed to read the earlier chapters of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective).

In a similar fashion, some modern authors seem all too ready to conflate Halbwachs’s generalized treatment of the “localization” of memory with his specific discussions about locations, places, etc. To be fair, we might argue that part of the problem is Halbwachs’s use of the term.

Localizing individual memories in social frameworks

Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les ...

Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire, 2 édition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So let’s try to be clear from the start. In his 1925 work, Les cadres sociaux de la memoire, partially translated in On Collective Memory (see Chapter 3, “The Localization of Memory”), he explains that recent individual memories “hang together” only if we can place them within an overall framework. That is, they make sense to us when “they are part of a totality of thoughts common to a group.” He writes:

To recall them it is hence sufficient that we place ourselves in the perspective of this group, that we adopt its interests and follow the slant of its reflections. Exactly the same process occurs when we attempt to localize older memories. We have to place them within a totality of memories common to other groups, groups that are narrower and more lasting, such as our family. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 52, emphasis mine)

In its first iteration, then, localization in general refers to two things: (1) the placement of individuals within the perspective of a group and (2) the placement of individual memories within the larger framework of group memories. Hence, for Halbwachs, we cannot understand how memory works unless we take into account the associations between individual recollections and the group or groups to which that individual belongs.

We can understand each memory as it occurs in individual thought only if we locate each within the thought of the corresponding group. We cannot properly understand their relative strength and the ways in which they combine within individual thought unless we connect the individual to the various groups of which he is simultaneously a member. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 53, emphasis mine)

Conceptual localization vs. geographical localization

Clearly, Halbwachs is not talking about geographical places here, but “locations” within conceptual, sociological frameworks. However, it’s easy to conflate the two ideas by mistake, which Elizabeth Castelli does in Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making:   read more »


2015-03-21

The Dark Resurgence of Biblical History

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by Neil Godfrey

emergence_Biblical history and biblical archaeology have fought back to a new ascendancy after surviving the double-edged scrutiny of opponents they disparaged as “minimalists”.

For a moment it looked like genuine historical inquiry into ancient Palestine had the potential to displace the paraphrasing the Bible and the tendency to interpret nearly every archaeological artefact through the Bible. “Biblical History” and “Biblical Archaeology” blanket the archaeological remains of Palestine with the tapestry of the Bible’s story of Israel. Naturally this means that the tapestry’s tale appears distorted in places but the primary structure remains clear:

  • Israel emerged in Canaan as a distinctly religious and ethnic identity in the early part of the first millennium
  • After a period of some kind of unity culminating in David’s rule, Israel split into two political entities, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and continued to dominate the region up until the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities
  • The Jews returned after the Persians “liberated” them from their Babylonian exile and continued as a distinctly “Jewish” civilization up until the time the Romans dispersed them; the religions of Judaism and Christianity emerged from the religious thought and writings of this Second Temple era.

Other groups who make an appearance in this biblical history for most part do so as external conquerors to be overcome or as indigenous corrupters to be left behind.

This kind of history begins with the Bible and archaeological discoveries are significant insofar as they can add some colour or modification to that biblical narrative.

Is this comparable to beginning with the tales of King Arthur’s Camelot and using those to recreate the history of early Britain?

Doubling the excitement

Valid historical investigation should always ensure the horse is positioned in front of the cart.

Start with the “hard” evidence like the carved stones, baked clay and forged metal found in the ground. What can be reconstructed from these? After having done that we can compare the results with literature that first appeared in considerably later strata.

If we find that the literature describes just what we have found and calls it Camelot then that’s exciting. On the other hand, if the literature’s narrative of Camelot is significantly at odds with what we have found then we have double excitement: before us lie two quests — the quest to learn more about the real world history found through the hard evidence in the ground; another quest to understand the origin of the Camelot narrative.

A Fight for history

Twenty to thirty years ago a few scholars opened up the first challenges to the dominance of “Biblical history” in Biblical studies. Here is how one of those scholars, Keith Whitelam, looking back described what happened in the wake of the publication in 1987 of The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective by Robert Coote and himself: read more »


2015-03-18

Reading Mythicist Arguments Cautiously

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by Neil Godfrey

ChristInEgyptI recently posted the following on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum. I post it here to explain the main reason I am very cautious about the works of one group of Christ Myth advocates and hopefully to encourage them to a more constructive and critical approach to the debate. I do hope that the supporters of this perspective will try to understand that my failure to take their views on board is not motivated by any sort of hostility towards the author or their proposed thesis itself but is based upon their failure to appreciate the fundamentals of sound argument and critical thinking.

Let’s start with the positive. In defence of D. M. Murdock’s (aka Acharya S’s) discussion in Christ in Egypt about “crucified” Egyptian gods I think she does an interesting job of detailing the evidence for the various deities, especially with respect to Osiris, including the function of the djied cross or pillar, and early Christian interpretations of these — pages 336 to 352.

I think this is interesting background information that should rightly be factored into any historical and literary analyses that considers the origins of the Gospel of John’s miracle of the raising of Lazarus (as addressed in detail by Randel Helms in Gospel Fictions), Secret Mark (with its patent links to the raising of Lazarus story in John’s gospel) and the stories of Alexandrian provenance for certain early Christian authors.

But then on pages 353 to 356 it seems Murdock crashes into a brick wall by trying to overstate her case.

Or am I missing something that she has explained elsewhere to justify her argument?

We come to the heading “Divine Man” Crucified in Space. Referring to Massey’s discussion of the phrase “crucifixion in space” Murdock writes:  read more »


Why Religious Believers Want Atheist Seal of Approval

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by Neil Godfrey

Why Religious Believers Are So Desperate for the Atheist Seal of Approval

By Greta Christina / AlterNet

Excerpt:

I’ve been getting into these debates with religious believers for many years now. I’ve seen how they start out, and where they end up. I’ve seen many, many theists desperately try to get the Atheist Seal of Approval for their religion. And I’ve reached two conclusions about why they’re doing it.

    • They think atheists have higher standards than most believers, so our approval will mean more.
    • And they don’t want to think their religion has anything in common with those other sucky religions… and getting atheists’ approval would let them keep on thinking that.

2015-03-16

A Tribute to Maurice Halbwachs

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by Tim Widowfield

Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Sociologist, 1877-1945

In a recent post on memory theory, I erroneously stated that of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective) was published posthumously in 1941. In actuality, Halbwachs died 70 years ago on this date in 1945, in the German death camp called Buchenwald. His health had failed, and he did not survive to see the Allies free the camp just 19 days later on 4 April.

And sadly, that date as posted on Wikipedia — 16 March — is probably not correct. According to The American Journal of Sociology (see Vol. LI, No. 6), it happened back in February, and that may be right. On the other hand, the official death report from the Buchenwald archives (transcribed here) says it happened on the 15th of March.

On the day he died, his one-time student, Jorge Semprún, had the terrible job of erasing the memory of Maurice Halbwachs, his friend and teacher. At the camp office, he explained the ritual that represented the annihilation of a person. read more »


2015-03-15

Now for something light (or heavy if you prefer)

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by Neil Godfrey

As an interlude till the next post on Vridar –

How did Jesus get to be so hot? (Or the historical origins of images of Jesus and what they say about their creators and us.) This is also on AlterNet. It’s by Valerie Tarico.

screen_shot_2015-03-12_at_3.18.51_pm

Was Jesus resurrected naked? – and is that how he appeared to Mary and the others? Though James Tabor insists the question has serious implications for theology!

Tizian-Post-Resurrection

 


2015-03-14

Daniel Boyarin

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by Neil Godfrey

I disengaged from the question that was being asked, falling on the last resort of the scholarly scoundrel: “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened! (Daniel Boyarin)

Thanks to Jim Davila‘s PaleoJudaica.com blog I see the JWeekly has published a lengthy article on one of my go-to scholars, Daniel Boyarin.

Daniel Boyarin — the Talmudist, feminist, anti-Zionist, only-in-Berkeley Orthodox Jew

boyarin

I’ve cited Boyarin in about a dozen posts on Vridar and will certainly refer to some of his works again. Not that I play “follow the leader” so much as I find him a most though-provoking and informative teacher: his works are always leading me back to study original sources and to read ever more widely among other scholarly works with which he engages. After I’ve finished one more round of this process I may find myself doubting some proposed point of his (I do not realize how painfully conservative I am till I read some of his radical views) but I will always be returning to his books for fresh perspectives and gateways to learning.

Some excerpts I enjoyed from the JWeekly article:

read more »


2015-03-12

Mythicism Making Christianity More Meaningful

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by Neil Godfrey

Edward van der Kaaij

Edward van der Kaaij

Herman Detering posted on Facebook a link to the latest news of the Dutch pastor who has “come out” claiming that Jesus never existed. The news is an update on the fate of pastor Edward van der Kaaij who made the news a month ago in the NLTimes:

Jesus didn’t exist, but a “myth”, says banned pastor

That February NLTimes article said van der Kaaij was cointinuing to preach; I think the update alert from Herman Detering is telling us that that has changed. He is no longer able to preach.

Here are a few excerpts from the earlier February article:

“When someone reads Genesis 1 as a scientific explanation of how the world came into being, and concludes that the beginning was not about 13 billion years ago (as we know now) because the Bible states that it was about 70,000 years ago, then you do not properly understand the Bible,” explained van der Kaaij.

“The gospel is telling us a deeper truth, that goes far beyond the facts of life. That’s why I say: it did not happen like this and it is a fact that Jesus did not exist (I give a lot of proofs in my book to underline this).”

9789402206999_cover_kleinHis book is De ongemakkelijke waarheid van het christendom (=The uncomfortable truth of Christianity). That link is to a Dutch bookseller. I copy here the Google machine translation of that site’s blurb (my own bolding throughout):

Jesus is a mythical, archetypal figure in a historical context. The uncomfortable truth gives a fresh perspective on faith and solves puzzles. So is the riddle of the three years of birth of Jesus addressed. You can find the answer to the question why nothing is known about the life of Jesus from his twelfth to his thirtieth year. How come the resurrection of Lazarus was not in the newspaper? What makes Jesus greater than the greats? At first glance, this book lays the ax to the roots of the faith, but on closer inspection the faith is richer.

Returning to the NLTimes February article:

“I am a Protestant and an important aspect of our belief is that the Bible is God’s Word (although written by men) and the starting point of our belief,” said van der Kaaij to NL Times. “So it is important to explain the Bible properly.”. . .

The gospel gets more value when you read it according to what it is: a myth. Note that the word ‘myth’ does not have a negative meaning, on the contrary it is positive!read more »


2015-03-11

The Difference between Story and History in the Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

James Barr

James Barr

In 1980 the influential biblical scholar James Barr produced a “seminal essay” that classified “the narrative complex of the Hebrew Bible as story rather than history” and contributed to “[many retreating] into an historiographic scepticism”(Whitelam, 1987, 2010). The focus of Barr’s essay (and Keith Whitelam’s reference to it) is the Old Testament. It is important to understand, however, that “historical nihilism” is not the inevitable destination if we find our sources are more story than history.

Certainty is not a prerequisite to understanding. It is the will to understand rather than simply the will to know for certain that is the driving force for the inquiry to be undertaken here. (Whitelam, p. 20.)

I think that the same principles carry over to the New Testament’s Gospels and Acts, too. That’s too controversial for many today, however. The Gospel narratives must stand firm as grounded in historical memory of some kind. Whitelam in his 2010 edition of his 1987 book lamented the failure of the critical potential to blossom in the field of Old Testament studies:

The rise of the biblical history movement and ‘new biblical archaeology’ means that the project envisaged a quarter of a century ago is even further away from realization today than it was then. (p. xiii)

How much further away we must be from applying the same critical questions to the stories of Jesus!

Following is how Barr explained the differences between history and story. It comes from “Story and History in Biblical Theology: The Third Nuveen Lecture” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 1-17. Published in Explorations in Theology 7, 1980.

Old Testament narratives cannot be described as ”history” but rather as containing “certain of the features that belong to history”. Examples: read more »


All Bible Scholars Agree . . . (so what?)

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by Neil Godfrey

No scholar employed by a major university doubts Jesus existed. 

scholars

Is all scholarly consensus equal?

One sometimes reads a claim like this by a theologian or bible scholar although generally they will more modestly say only that no scholar employed by a theology or biblical studies department holds this view.

How should we evaluate such a claim?

The intention behind the claim is to persuade us to accept the authority of biblical scholarship in the same way we might accept the authoritative claims of scientists, engineers or doctors.

But the difference should be obvious to all. The sciences are about universal physical facts; biblical studies are a culturally limited and ideological area of interest.

What if we were to read an Islamic scholar saying no scholar of the Koran or Islam at a reputable university believes Jesus was crucified or doubts Mohammad rose to heaven on a flying horse?

Look, also, at the Who’s Who table to see who in relatively recent years have confessed to doubts about the most fundamental claim of biblical scholarship. Highly respected linguists, philosophers and scientists as well as a broad range of literature scholars, psychologists, engineers are on the list.

These are people who do know how to evaluate claims and are not going to be fobbed off with authoritative declarations about what “bible scholars believe”. These are not people who are somehow perverse eccentrics who are just as likely to be found wondering if Young Earth Creationists are right after all.

People know biblical scholarship does not hold the same universal authoritative status as the medical sciences. It is not hard to find scholars in the sciences even mocking the whole discipline of theology for its ill-informed pretensions to accommodation with evolution.

All authority should be held accountable and welcome challenges if it is to validly justify itself.
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